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Feb 27, 2009

Candy in the box

Two full days: that is how long it took me to do evaluations this year. It is a tense time of the year, because of the spring fatigue and the evaluations. I am called to judge my friends and colleagues, with whom I work every day. No one likes to be judged, because no one else knows better how hard one worked and how much one has accomplished. The easy way for me would be to rubber-stump the results of peer evaluations and be done with that. It is a temptation, of course, but it does not work. The reason for several levels of review is exactly to ensure that sometimes I can disagree with faculty, and the Dean can disagree with either or both of previous evaluations. This is because we have different information, and develop different view on things, so our assessments average into something fairer than one person is capable of producing.

One thing I noticed this year is that faculty members do not always know the extent and the nature of work that a program coordinator performs. Much of this work is unglamorous; it does not attract much attention, and does not place one in the spotlight. I know more about these things, just because much of it interacts with me and the School office. So, I have an idea of how much time, effort, and creativity it takes, for example, to figure out a schedule, to hire a new part time faculty, or respond to one of many student crises. But we rarely have time to talk about this at our meetings, so people who do not talk a lot about what they do may not be recognized enough. Note for self: create more opportunities and spaces for faculty to talk about their work to each other. Highlight people's accomplishments and achievements more often, even though they are not as sexy as a new book or a new grant.

The general rule is this: no one can know everything; our information access is always limited. Because of this, there is a grown-up version of what psychologists call egocentrism. I quote from the Wikipedia article linked here: "if a child sees that there is candy in a box, he assumes that someone else walking into the room also knows that there is candy in that box. He implicitly reasons that "since I know it, you should too"." We supposedly grow out of it in adulthood, but not completely. It is hard to remember that the work I did with person A or person B maybe completely unknown to the rest of the faculty. This applies, by the way, both accomplishments and shortcomings. So, you find yourself wondering: why on Earth would they make that judgment? The more often than not answer is: they don't know what you know, and they know what you don't know. Another version of the same explanation is: they don't have the same objectives as you may have, so they think differently.

Of course, in the peer evaluation process, people put together their dossiers, and present what they accomplished. But here, again, the same adult egocentrism works in its subtle ways. The way most people present their work includes many assumptions about others' knowledge that are often false. And this also goes in both directions: you may simply mention something, assuming everyone will immediately recognize what an accomplishment it is, and they may have little idea about it. Or, you hype your accomplishments too much, or go into too much detail, or embellish them just a little, and your readers lose confidence in what they see. As a result, they underestimate your real achievements. And of course, we don't know what is real. If the outcomes of scholarship and teaching are more or less measurable in principle, service is entirely different. The number of committees one serves on is not a good criterion. Keeping track of one's hours seems embarrassing. Some people tend to seek high-profile service commitments, while others do low-profile things that just needed to be done. Some people create enormous value to the group through informal channels, without ever forming a committee. Others do a lot of good, just not for this School. How do you measure and compare any of it? And almost everyone believes that their service is the hardest, the most needed, and the most important. That's because every one of you have the most abundant, excessive knowledge of only one person – yourself.

It gets more interesting when people discover that faculty, or the director, or the Dean disagree with them on their self-assessment. If you forget about the information asymmetry, the only possible explanation is value-laden – those people are mean to me, don't like me, or not too smart. But if you think about it, this is not too far from the child's "since I know it, you should too." And if you start entertaining the emotional explanations, then your own lenses as an evaluator also get skewed, so a little vicious game of retaliation may creep in, unnoticed.

We're not in danger of corrupting the process; far from it. Most people do a lot of good work, and most people approach each other's records very fairly. We improved the whole process enormously, thanks to the faculty of this School. We have a lot of trust and respect for each other. Just to make sure we keep it that way, and make it better, I would like to remind everyone about the egocentrism and information asymmetry. If you see that candy in the box, it does not mean others see it. Nor does it mean that if you tell them about your candy in your box they will necessarily imagine it the same way.

Feb 20, 2009

How to lose $240,000 in 30 days

On Jan 14, which is actually 36 days ago (30 just sounds better in the title), I sent this e-mail to one of UNC administrators:

If we "supersize" our Elementary PB cohorts to 30 people in each, can we also pay instructors a little bit more for the large classes? For example, if we assume 25 students is the maximum normal size, then each student is 4% of the load. So, we would like to add at least 4% on top of maximum pay ($1500 per credit) for each student above 25. 26 people would be 1560 per credit, 30 people will be 1800 per credit. We will use a similar formula to increase coordinator's stipend. […] I know it is complicated to keep track of, but extra 15 people will bring in an extra quarter million. It is definitely cheaper than opening a new cohort. We seem to have enough qualified candidates.

For those of you who don't know, the math works like this: the program is 48 credits, at $340 per credit. This means each additional student would bring in $16,320. 15 additional students would generate $244,800. If we paid the instructors a little extra, it would cost us $2,880, plus perhaps $2000 more for coordination, total of $4880. The university is tax-exempt, so we would clear $239,920 in one year. Keeping in mind that the University is expecting a $2.9 million shortfall, this would not be a bad little something, all at a price of saying "sure." The catch is – we needed the permission quickly. To manage the increase, we would have to make sure most instructors are OK to teach the larger classes, we'd need to extend the official deadline, and make sure the admission process is still rigorous and fair, and people still have the time to apply. We cannot hold admission decisions, because students won't be able to meet the priority deadline for financial aid. It is entirely too late now, and I still have not received a decision. I did remind, and was told – this decision needs to be made at a higher level. And yes, of course, I did make a point this was time-sensitive. So, I scratched this one from my to-do list. We have other things to do, and this particular program is already successful, large, and gives more than enough work to its coordinator and our off-campus program manager.

Of course, the story is more complicated than that. The University is trying to make its operations more orderly and more equitable. For example, the increase of pay for off-campus classes has been discussed last year, and it was decided that there would not be a difference between on- and off-campus compensation, because it creates negative incentives for faculty to teach on-campus. I actually was in favor of it then, but this is a different proposal – not a blank increase, but a formula for oversized classes. This proposal has a clear rule attached to it.

As the Provost rightfully noted at our recent meeting, you cannot have two different accounting systems, one with large incentives, and another with small, or no incentives at all. I agree, and have written about this in June of 2008. So, there is a valid hesitation to just let people to do whatever they want, and to make separate deals with every unit on campus. There has to be a clear chain of authority, and the interests of the entire campus must be protected above those of each individual unit. I understand all this, but still, the answer should not and cannot include decisions that lose us all a lot of money, and let's not forget, deny 15 potential students access to education they need. Yes, we need a better, more orderly, more equitable system. Yes, the University s entitled to the lion's share of the profits we help generate. But you cannot innovate or grow if the decision-making channels are shut down. A new set of regulations should be firmly in place before the old chaotic system is yanked from under our feet.

And the financial emergency is not an excuse. Many economists believe that the Great depression was significantly compounded by the Federal Government trying to cut spending, raise taxes and retreat to protectionism. The same psychology is at work at our level. If you're in charge of an institution and it is facing financial problems, your first instinct might be to clamp down. You confiscate extra cash from all the units sitting on it, so you can allow them to operate more or less normally, no keep their own people employed, to avoid cancelling searches, etc. You try to normalize the cash flow back to the central office, so resources are not being horded and stashed away in hundreds of different accounts. It is, you figure, a small price to pay for making it through the emergency with minimal losses. I am not sure if I won't be doing something similar if I were in their position. But you cannot lose quarter a million dollars in 30 days, no matter what. Small decision or indecisions have large consequences. A time of crisis is the time to unleash people's initiative and creativity; it is the time of experiments and bold moves. You have to be very cautious when the times are good, and take risks when the times are not so good. To be agile and flexible, the institution needs to trust its people to have good intentions and to make good decisions. The last thing you want to do is to freeze up initiative.

Feb 13, 2009

On the future of higher education

There are at least three paradoxes inherent in the current higher education system:

  1. Professors give grades to students, and grades are the main way of evaluating students work. However, if you give everyone poor grades, it reflects badly on your own teaching. Therefore, professors evaluate themselves, and this is a conflict of interest. In the K-12 world, state tests at least partially address this issue; nothing like this exists in higher education. Let's call this the paradox of the fox guarding the chicken coop.
  2. Most universities outside of Ivy League depend on enrollments to maintain their budgets. They also are supposed to be selective and maintain high academic standards. Most reconcile this conflict by admitting a lot of unprepared freshmen, and then either helping them to achieve, or making them drop after the first year. Nevertheless, it is a conflict of interest. If you charge someone money, and that someone can take one's money elsewhere, you will eventually lower your demands. This is the race to the bottom paradox.
  3. Universities charge students per seat time (per credit), so students pay for out attempts to teach, not for actual help with learning we are able to provide. It is very difficult to demonstrate that there is a direct relation between seat time and competency. Students have no say in how much help and what kind of help they need from us (see a related blog "Till When?"). But because higher education consists of relatively independent courses, bundling them makes very little sense. More teaching does not mean better learning, because learning depends on the level of effort by students. And what we have is a system that encourages a lot of teaching, and not enough learning. Unlike any other industry in the world, colleges brag about low student-professor ratios. Just imagine a company advertising that their bicycles are better, because it uses twice as many people to put them together. So, there is a perverse incentive for universities to become less and less efficient. It is the boutique paradox: a boutique store can charge more than Wal-Mart, but it can never become larger than Wal-Mart. Many middle-rank universities are trying to catch up with harvards of the realm, not realizing how self-defeating such a strategy is. In the meanwhile, the bottom-feeders whose names I will not name, flooded the market with cheap diplomas of suspicious quality.

In my mind, the reform of higher education can be sketched out. First, we need to develop an impartial assessment system which does not rely on instructors. Bar exams in medicine and law are probably the best available models for now. I don't see why something like that cannot be implemented in all other fields. Universities should also measure the level of incoming freshmen, and then report to the public on the value added, not on the final results. In other words, it is important to see how much your students have grown, not how you are able to attract the best high school graduates. The value-added measures can be clearly laid out with respect to the cost of tuition, so people can make rational choices about which university to attend. This will put an end to the practice of selling the brand, where people pay hundreds of thousands of extra dollars just to have a big name on their diploma. I would also legally ban employers from asking what university an applicant has graduated from. This is none of their business; they should not discriminate on the grounds that have nothing to do with competency.

Second, we should control the cost of higher education by charging students more if they require more help, and charge less if they can do more of learning on their own. Students should be able to determine what kind of help they need: a semester-long class, a shorter overview, individual tutoring, or none at all. This would create an incentive for every student to work harder, and for universities to stop wasteful teaching. Of course, for this to work, assessment should be divorced from instruction: you cannot have the same people teaching and evaluating the results of teaching. The State of Colorado made a feeble attempt to implement something like that, by requiring colleges to allow students to test out of courses. I still know of no student that did, and it is mostly because there is no fee per test a university can charge, and because you would take the exam with the same professor whose class you claim not to need at all.

Third, the nation's faculty should put a stop to the racket of publishing houses. Most textbooks contain little original research or even original ideas. They can be created by volunteers (like Wikipedia or Wiki Books) and cost nothing to students. We just need to organize; and perhaps AAUP can lead the effort.

These are ideas that maybe a little too radical for most people to accept or even to consider. And I am certainly not saying we should start some crazy experiment next month. If I learned something on my job, it is that the bigger the change, the more careful you must be while implementing it. It would take years of experimenting and discussion. However, we must realize, time is not on our side. In the long-term perspective, we will not move forward without addressing these paradoxes. As the cost of higher education is rising, and competition is getting stronger, something's got to give. Not today, not within next 10 years, but eventually the higher education system will have to reinvent itself.